“And Sarah said, God hath made me to laugh, so that all that hear will laugh with me.”
-Genesis 21: 6
How could anyone find humor in an Ash Wednesday service funny? James Martin, in his book, Between Heaven and Mirth, writes, “I always perk up when the priest on Ash Wednesday reads the Gospel passage that says, ‘And whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites…but…wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others.’ What does the priest do next? He asks parishioners to come forward to smear ashes on their foreheads, dirtying their faces so that everyone can see that they are doing penance.”
He’s right, it is pretty funny that we do that in church! Maybe the reason why we miss the humor, the joy, the happiness of things that are religious is because we consider God to be very serious. There is nothing wrong with visualizing God as being serious. After all, God heals the hurts of the world, and everyone knows that dealing with a lot of hurts generates somber, serious feelings. But the Psalms say that the world was created with joy. So while it is good to be reverent and serious about God, we must realize that God created the world, and all of us, in a mood of joy. So when we worship God our attitude must be rooted not only in thankful reverence, but also in joyful thanksgiving.
The Bible is a book of joy. The foundational couple of the Old Testament, Sarah and Abraham,rooted our tradition in joy when they named their child, “Laughter.” And we have learned that Jesus, the main character of the New Testament told many funny stories. Have you ever thought of Jesus with a sense of humor? The image that I grew up with was Jesus telling the parables to a crowd of people sitting quietly around the Sea of Galilee. In my mind’s eye, I imagined their serious faces hanging on every word that Jesus said, and Jesus speaking sternly without a smile. I had always thought that heaven was serious business. C.S. Lewis knew how to correct this image when he wrote, “Joy is the serious business of heaven.”
The book, The Misunderstood Jew, by the Vanderbilt New Testament scholar Amy Levine, explains that since we are so far from the cultural context of the first century Jewish world of Jesus, we miss the whole picture of who Jesus was. Most of his sense of humor goes right over our heads. Mentioning faith like a mustard seed or a camel through an eye of a needle would have gotten a big laugh.
Joseph Grassi’s book, God Makes Me Laugh, A New Approach to Luke, contrasts Jesus’ approach to religion (celebrating at a wedding party) with the approach of the Pharisees (strict attention to keeping the law). “Jesus was effectively saying that his approach changed the ordinary somber picture of religion to the most joyous images of human life,” wrote Grassi. Have you ever thought of Jesus as being at a party, or even being the life of the party? Let us consider Matthew 22, a moment when the Pharisees thought that they had finally trapped Jesus. They asked him who taxes should be paid to, God or Caesar. Our interpretation focuses upon the separation of church and state, but actually it is a classic example of Jesus being his humorous self.
The Theology Today’s article “Divine Folly: Being Religious and the Exercise of Humor” portrays Jesus as a witty comic when he encounters the Pharisees: “Reading the passage afresh, we notice that when Jesus asks the Pharisees to produce a coin, they do so, even though a strictly pious Jew would never carry a coin bearing Caesar’s image with an inscription proclaiming Caesar to be king and God. These presumed righteous citizens are thus carrying around coins that break two commandments! The behavior of the Pharisees is incriminating, embarrassing, and amusing, to say the least. Robert Funk also points out that there is no indication that Jesus returned the coin to the Pharisee. According to Funk, as Jesus proclaims the punchline-’and render to God the things that are God’s’-he pockets the coin and has the last laugh.”
Maybe it’s true- we are too familiar with these stories to really get their humor. Elton Trueblood was reading his four year old the story Jesus told about ignoring the plank in your own eye but finding the speck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. His four year old starting laughing hysterically. Trueblood decided that the stories of Jesus are like old coins that have been rubbed down, losing their comedic punch, so he wrote a book called The Humor of Christ, showing the Jesus behind the quote that he told his disciples, “These things I have spoken, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy may be full.”
What if we could catch the humor of Christ not only in the Bible stories, but also in life? Since we were created in joy, whenever we are joyful we are nearer to our original state. I realize that many proclaim the benefits of suffering, but joy has benefits, too, in fact, greater benefits. Just as when we let our guard down and allow God to enter the picture when we suffer, we also loosen our grip on life and God enters in when we are joyful. When we laugh we are moving in God’s direction, toward hope, love, life, and away from despair. Humor helps! It helps heal the body and the spirit.
Maybe you heard the story of the editor of The Saturday Review, Norman Cousins? Chicago’s own Dr. Joe Guse (who became so inspired by the power of laughter to heal that he quit his job as a comedian to become a clinical psychologist) picks up the story after Cousins was diagnosed with a condition that was deteriorating the connective tissue in his spine: “The doctors, one of whom was a close friend of Cousins, speculated that his chance of survival was approximately 1 in 500. Faced with the real prospect of his impending death, Cousins thought long and hard about what role, if any, he could play in his own recovery, and eventually did three things utterly contrary to medical opinion. First he began his own research on all of the various drugs he was on. He discovered that his condition was depleting his body of Vitamin C and, based primarily on Cousins’ personal research, doctors agreed to take him off several of the drugs he was on and inject him with extremely large doses of this supplement, as Cousins felt this may be his last hope.
Secondly, Cousins made a decision to check himself out of the hospital and into a hotel room. Cousins had concluded that hospitals, with their haphazard hygiene practices, culture of overmedication, general feelings of negativity, and routines that disrupted basic sleep patterns, all contributed to his feeling that, in his words a hospital was “no place for a person who is seriously ill.” The third thing Cousins did was procure a movie projector and a large supply of funny films, including numerous Candid Camera tapes and several old prints of Marx Brothers’ movies. On his first night in the hotel Cousins found that he laughed so hard at the films that he was able to stimulate chemicals in his body that allowed him several hours of pain free sleep. When the pain would return he would simply turn the projector back on and the laughter would reinduce sleep. He was able to measure the changes in his body by measuring his blood sedimentation rate, a key measurement of inflammation and infection in the blood, and found that this rate dropped by at least 5 points each time he watched one of these videos.
Now off every drug excepting Vitamin C and laughter, Cousins described being in a state of euphoria over the next week as he continued to laugh himself back to health. Within a few weeks, the beloved editor was back to work at The Saturday Review, and, although he still had some minor physical difficulties, his body continued to recover as he continued with his self- directed wellness program…While in the hospital Cousins hypothesized that if negative emotions such as anger and frustration could contribute to poor health, why couldn’t positive emotions such as joy and laughter have the opposite effect? Cousins soon embraced this idea, and this contributed to an optimistic attitude that may very well have saved his life.
…Despite intense pain and discomfort, Cousins made a point of laughing so hard his stomach hurt during the early stages of his Marx brother’s intervention, and this “unquenchable” laughter never failed to produce a strong reduction in his feelings of pain. Cousins goes on to mention many prominent thinkers throughout the ages who knew about the healing power of laughter, and this list includes Sir Frances Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Sigmund Freud, as well as the great Albert Schweitzer. This list could be much longer, and Cousins’ own story has given rise to many new ways of thinking that helped contribute to the rise of phenomena such as the laughter club. Ultimately laughter may represent the rapture of the human spirit, and in finding this rapture we also find our way back to health. Norman Cousins certainly thought so, and his journey back to life through laughter is an inspiration to us all.”
Besides healing the body, laughter and joy can heal the spirit. Being able to maintain a sense of humor when life throws us a curve ball helps us cope. Humor allows us to realize that nothing in this life can defeat us. Death cannot. When we can remember the funny times with a loved one we can be uplifted both by the memory and by the fact that we will share more fun times with that person again.
Circumstances in life that lead us to confusion and anxiety can be overcome by laughter and a sense of humor. In a way, as the Theology Today article states, humor is a surrender. “Surrender is necessary. Fists holding on tight to preconceptions and “the way we always did it” need to be relaxed. In the flush of letting go, a death occurs. It is the death of the ego and a death of the familiar, ego-centered order we superimpose on reality. And this is precisely where a sense of humor entersor, ought to enter-the picture. Without it, we may fearfully retreat into our self-pitying, pompous, or safe selves ready to share the harrowing experience of what almost happened with anyone who will listen. Without a sense of humor, an imprisonment occurs that shackles the human spirit and turns it in on itself in an aggrandized version of its self-importance.
Some things happen when we face the truth about ourselves. For one thing, there is no room for pomposity, arrogance, or self-absorption. More than one person has pointed out how closely conjoined “humility” is with “humor.” A sense of humor, like a true sense of humility, involves ruthless honesty about who we are, without disguise or pretense. The temptation, of course, is to become weighted with gravity, to deal with prayer and worship with excessive formality, and to take ourselves very seriously indeed. The point is that the opposite route is the direct one. The grace needed is to face ourselves with an appropriate degree of lightness so that we can listen obediently to the plan God has for each of us.
We may miss the fact that God is the author of humor, or that Jesus taught life’s greatest lessons with a sense of humor, but seeing the lighter side of life can heal the body and the spirit. Let us look for the joy that can ease the burdens of life. Let us seek and embrace the joy of God, for whenever we do, we get closer to God, the source and author of all joy.